Horn Book Law

Yesterday I made the most amazing discovery of my law school career (which is, by the way, only a week and a half shy of being halfway over): horn books.

Now, I had heard of horn books before. My first semester, the lady at the law bookstore encouraged me to buy one for my criminal law class. When she said I wouldn’t have any assignments out of it, I wondered, “why would I buy a book I don’t have to read?” and kindly declined the offer.

As that first semester wore on, I heard more about horn books. They were good for finding black letter law. In fact, in judicial opinions, if the judge thinks the law is clear, she will often write, “it is horn book law that…” But they seemed to have a bad reputation with my professors. They may help you understand the basics, but not the analysis of the case. If we were studying the way we were supposed to, most of our professors said, we would have no need for horn books. So I smuggly patted myself on the back for not buying the crim horn book.

At the end of that semester, turns out I did alright (the lowest grade being the crim class), but, I dismissed horn books as something I would never use in my law school experience because they were a needless crutch.

Fast-forward to today. I have a Civil Rights Litigation Exam an hour the time I am writing this post. I’ve gone to all of the classes, and have found the material interesting. But I knew there were somethings from early in the semester that I didn’t have a firm grasp on. In addition to the fact that 50% of my class is on Law Review, I was worried my lack of familiarity with the subject matter would have a negative impact on my grade. Remember, law school exams are often 100% of your final grade, and graded on a mandatory curve.

The last day, I noticed that there were a number of people in the class with a horn book. I went to the bookstore to check it out for myself, but when I saw that it was over $60 and I really only needed a couple of chapters from it, I again thought it would be a useless crutch. But after four days of study from my book and notes, I knew that I needed something to fill in the gaps. I went to the library, got the horn book out of the reserve room and made the necessary copies.

As I went through the materials, I wondered, why haven’t I ever used one of these before? Everything is spelled out clearly, no obscurity that law textbooks love to include. And it says what happened in each case, the holding, what’s good about it, what’s wrong with it. My whole class was in this book. It was so much better than my textbook for learning the material. I spoke with some friends about it, and they said they had had similar epiphanies about the use of horn books, and thought the professors should just use them instead of textbooks.

As I was contemplating this last night, I thought about how legal studies parallel studying the Bible. Both are exercises in hermeneutics. And the thought comparison gave me pause about the horn book. I would never, never, never tell someone to read a book about the Bible over reading the Bible itself. Yes, they might be helpful to orient yourself with a particular passage or topic of Scripture, but ultimately, you can’t throughout the Bible and just read books about it. You have to keep reading the original source.

As much as we may complain about reading cases, they are the original source–why should I be happy reading a book about the source rather than the source itself? As an historian, this makes sense, you have to read the original. But then again, there is not a divine spirit of legal illumination whispering in my ear the proper case law interpretation that judge will hold me to when I argue a case in court.

So it’s not a perfect parallel. But it has reaffirmed my understanding of the need to feast on the Bible first and foremost, returning to it as the ultimate source. As for horn books, I may still never buy one.Ā  will after all be held accountable for what was in the casebook, not the horn book. But they are quite helpful, and now I know where they are in the library…

Either way, ready or not, I need to get going, and take this exam!

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